Blue Mountains resident Daniel Hanigan awarded prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Did ancient Greeks and Romans consult their versions of the Lonely Planet Guide before setting sail for strange lands?

This is one of the questions Warrimoo native Daniel Hanigan will grapple with when he starts a PhD at Cambridge University in October after being awarded a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Mr Hanigan's PhD studies will delve into the largely overlooked scholarly field of ancient Greek and Roman travel writing.

"Whether it sits together into a uniquely understood genre has been a huge problem for scholars for the last 300 years or so," he said. "The result has been that a great many pieces of this hard-to-categorise literature get relegated to compendia and fragments and never get looked at properly. My project will draw all these things out and consider them together and see what it is they are trying to do and how they relate to each other."

Ancient Greek writer Herakleides Kritikos was one person whose travel observations wouldn't be out of place in modern times, according to Mr Hanigan.

"His descriptions sound exactly like the sort of thing you would get in a Lonely Planet Guide. He describes geographical landmarks and things of interest but then he also says things like, 'The people who live in this part of town are pretty distasteful so don't go there', and 'Up here at certain times of the year the trees bloom in interesting ways'."

But the Third Century scribe might have been the exception in ancient times.

"One of the questions of ancient literature is whether there is even a genre of travel literature at all," said Mr Hanigan.

Ancient merchant sailors were known for their hatred of each other, he said, so they were unlikely to share travel tips via published works. It's also unlikely they were published as general literary works.

"I wouldn't exactly recommend them as bedtime reading, so that seems to be ruled out," he said.

Mr Hanigan will leave for Cambridge in September before taking up his scholarship at Corpus Christi College the following month.

The 24-year-old's impressive language skills are just one of the reasons he was awarded the scholarship. He is proficient in Ancient Greek and Latin ("with a spattering of Hebrew where relevant") as well as modern German and French plus a bit of Italian and modern Greek on the side.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is one of the most distinguished scholarly funds and ranks alongside the Rhodes Scholarship for Oxford University and the Fulbright for the great universities of America.

It's in some ways an unlikely end point for the former St Dominic's College student, who admits he "had absolutely no idea" what he wanted to do when he finished school.

He initially focused on mathematics in his undergraduate studies at Sydney University before taking a left turn to into ancient history. It was a change that paid dividends.

Mr Hanigan's fourth year Honours thesis on theatre and autocracy in ancient Athens earned him the University Medal.

He did his Masters degree on Clement of Alexandria, an obscure second century Christian apologist who was born a pagan in Athens.

"He's less well-known [outside of theology circles]... so it was about bringing someone back who hadn't been focused on enough."

Mr Hanigan is currently performing a similar function as an assistant librarian at St Andrew's College at Sydney University. With his expertise in ancient languages he has been cataloguing neglected books in the college's collection, some of which date back to the 1600s.

"Like Clement of Alexandria, it's just been left to get dusty," he said of the library.

Although he now lives in Sydney, Mr Hanigan commuted from Warrimoo for five years during his undergraduate studies and is still a regular visitor to the Mountains, where his family still live.

After completing his PhD he hopes to stay in the UK or Europe doing postdoctoral work before finding a full-time position in a Classics department somewhere in the world.

"A position at Sydney University and a house in the Blue Mountains would be ideal, but we shall see!" he said.